Immigration in Israel: African outcasts in the promised land

As African refugees are put into camps and attacked by racist gangs,  Donald Macintyre reports from Tel Aviv

Amine Zigta is not a timid man. If he was, he would not have risked his life by escaping indefinite enforced army service in Eritrea, or making the hazardous journey through Sudan and the Sinai desert to Israel. Nor would he have kept open his corner bar in south Tel Aviv after 15 local hoodlums shouting "what do you care, you black son of a bitch?" broke off table legs in March to assault him after he refused to serve teenagers below the legal drinking age. "But now," Mr Zigta, 36, says in fluent Hebrew, "I am afraid, all the time. At night I can't sleep. I am in danger."

Given subsequent events, his fears are understandable. On 23 May, with a demonstration against African refugees planned for the evening, he locked up at around 4pm. Hours later, residents phoned to say demonstrators were breaking in. Mr Zigta went to two police stations for help and was still waiting at a third when he got another call to say a police patrol had finally turned up. When he arrived, he found the plate glass windows smashed by bricks, tables upturned and all his stock stolen by looters.

This month, a motorcyclist hurled a firecracker into the bar, injuring a customer. An Eritrean woman working there was threatened by two men that "her stomach would be cut open with knives", he says. "I have been to the police but they say they can't guard the place 24 hours." Friendly local Israelis phone in warnings when trouble is afoot. "But then they are told: why are you helping this man?"

Mr Zigta's experience is extreme. But otherwise he typifies the 60,000 African men and women who have crossed the still-porous Egypt-Israel border since 2005. Many of the more recent have braved kidnappings, torture and rape by their Bedouin traffickers. Of the 50,000 "infiltrators" (the official term has been condemned by the US State Department) still here, Eritreans and Sudanese cannot be deported because the dangers at home qualify them for "collective protection" under international conventions. A third group, 1,000 South Sudanese, are being deported after a court ruling that the new state is safe to return to.

But with a suspended deportation order hanging over them, the remaining African asylum-seekers are in legal limbo, unable to secure refugee status and therefore access to health and social services. Their entry documents forbid work, and though Israel's Supreme Court has ordered the state not to enforce this, the Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, says he intends to find a way to do so. A new law permits detention of refugees for three years, and so Israel is constructing a 12,400-place desert prison camp – along with tented facilities across the country – "to house tens of thousands of infiltrators until they can be sent out of the country", Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this month. The inmates will not be allowed to work.

Until this month, when the government decided to keep new "infiltrators" in jail, refugees have been detained and screened before "conditional" release. They generally say they were humanely treated by the soldiers on arrival. It's after that that life got difficult.

"I was shocked. I thought Israel would give us our human rights," says Abdo Omar, 32, a university graduate who is one of around 200 Darfuris currently living at a grubby shelter rented out at a steep £2,000 a month, with sleeping bags on the floor and in corridors. Israel says that, as the nearest democracy to Africa with a first-world economy, it is uniquely vulnerable to a migrant influx. And it's true that south Tel Aviv has replaced Calais as the highest-profile flashpoint of a global crisis, the handling of which by European countries, including Britain, has been criticised.

But it's hard to imagine the British Home Secretary, Theresa May, say, surviving the generalisations deployed by Mr Yishai about the asylum-seekers he says have made south Tel Aviv Israel's "garbage can". The minister has suggested that "most" African migrants are criminals, and that many, including rapists, are HIV positive. Arguing that the refugees threaten the "Zionist dream", he has claimed that most are Muslims. Yet official figures show that in south Tel Aviv 13.5 per cent of crimes are committed by foreigners, who make up 28 per cent of the local population. And while Health ministry experts estimate that 17 per cent of HIV sufferers are among legal and illegal foreigners, who are 3 per cent of the national population, police say only one refugee has been charged with rape. And most members of the largest single group – the 35,000 Eritreans – are Christian.

Miri Regev, a Knesset member in Mr Netanyahu's Likud party, told the May protest that African migrants were a "cancer in our body". That evening, rampaging demonstrators attacked Africans and ransacked businesses – including Mr Zigta's bar. Because of the overtones of Hitler's wartime language against the Jews, Ms Regev later apologised to Holocaust survivors (and cancer patients) but not to the Africans. Both the language and the violence were subsequently condemned by Mr Netanyahu. But Ms Regev also unwittingly touched on comparisons some liberal Israelis make with the country's own foundation largely by refugees. Each evening, in Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park, up to 500 Africans queue for a hot meal provided by Israeli volunteers.

One volunteer, Vardit Shlafy, 50, explains that her parents were also refugees – from Poland – and that her mother was saved by a Catholic priest who helped her fake an ID that would allow escape to Russia from the Nazis. "Otherwise I wouldn't be here today. I am saying how grateful I am to that priest by doing something for others."

Even some Israelis in south Tel Aviv express unease about the government's policies. Shop owner Meir Yakoby has participated in "anti-infiltrator" demonstrations. Yet he employs an Eritrean worker. While he wants the refugees dispersed across the country, he says: "He has to work, he has to eat." Israel, he acknowledges, has "not been showing a good face to the world".

Certainly, it's hard to see how mass detention will help. According to Sigal Rozen, of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, a non-governmental organisation, government hopes that the Eritreans (whose average asylum application success rate is 83 per cent in countries – such as those in the EU –which process them) will thus be persuaded to return home are baseless. Israel is hardly going to follow Eritrea's example by raping inmates or torturing them in basements, she says. "No matter how they are abused, they know their own country will abuse them worse."

Kidane Isaac, 26, an Eritrean community activist, says if he returned to his homeland he would face torture or even execution after escaping from the army and then from jail. He says the Eritreans are increasingly "nervous about the general atmosphere because of the new campaign against refugees". Of Israel's "right-wing government" he says: "They are forgetting their own history."

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